Since its elections nearly two weeks ago, Spain has been stalled. The two main parties each fell just short of a majority in parliament, which one or the other needs to form a new government. But buried in the ballot’s footnotes is a lesson for countries striving to heal the sharp divisions of political grievance.
The region of Catalonia in Spain’s northeastern corner has a long history of secessionist discontent. Six years ago, it held a referendum to break away. The Spanish government responded with police force that human rights watchdogs called excessive. Lately, however, Madrid has struck a more conciliatory tone. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine separatist leaders in 2021 in what he called a “constitutional spirit of forgiveness.” In January, he signed a law striking sedition – the crime for which the nine were imprisoned – from Spain’s penal code.
Those gestures help to explain one outcome in the recent election. “Catalan national parties performed rather poorly in this election,” noted Carlota Encina, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, while “the very respectable voter turnout, over 70 percent, above the EU average, suggests that Spaniards have considerable faith in their representative institutions.”
At a time when political grievances are testing norms and institutions in countries like Israel, India, and the United States, some democracies are finding resilience in the practice of respect and humility.
Twice during his administration, French President Emmanuel Macron has gone on listening tours in response to mass social protests over fuel prices, taxes, and retirement reforms. In India, banned opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has done the same. He recently walked the country’s length listening in response to political violence and new restrictions on the religious minorities. The aim, he said, was “to stand up against the fear, hatred and violence that is being spread in the country.”
The South American country of Chile is trying its own experiment in accommodation. In June, the government launched a new Commission for Peace and Understanding to address the long-standing Indigenous grievances over land rights. A previous administration deployed soldiers in response to violence in Mapuche strongholds and imposed a state of emergency. The new panel rests on an acknowledgment of historical wrongs, including dispossession and ethnic pogroms, as a basis for building trust.
“We all come together from different visions [and] daily political quarrel,” said President Gabriel Boric, “putting the common good above our differences.”
Democracy, writes Harvard Business School professor David Moss, “needs to actively work against corrosive forces, both moral and institutional, or succumb to them.” From Spain to Chile, societies are finding a restorative power in words spoken softly.